Matariki – remembering my dead

Image of the Matariki constellation overlaid with Maori artwork

I can’t see the Matariki from here in Sydney, OZ, but I remember it each year. I remember Claire, my pagan friend, telling me of similar celebrations in other countries (day of the dead), a time to remember those who have passed on, a time to clean up family gravestones, share stories, do genealogy, show family members in photo albums and gather the young to remember those who are gone and share their stories.

This was to be the year, I was going to visit Aunt Liz’s grave in Christchurch, New Zealand, with COVID it will have to wait until next year. She died in May 2012, our cousins her children were casually cruel never bothering to tell the rest of the family that their mother had died ‘they couldn’t be bothered’, another family member said these were her daughter’s words. It was gutting, and it wrenches my heart even now not to be able to say goodbye. More so because around that time, I had sent a parcel of pictures and a long letter thanking Aunt Liz for her influence in my life, telling her I loved her. I know now, she never got it.

Aunt Liz was a striking, slim, tallish woman, she was fiercely protective and had some part in raising me from 5-6 years old. She was staunch as hell. When my father Richard was burnt; something close to over 70% of his body caused by a petrol pump explosion, the hospital refused to give him pain killers when he cried for them. As they figured he would die at any time so it would be a waste. (He was Maori, that’s just how it goes in a white Hospital). My Aunt flew from Christchurch to Wellington Hospital, when she found out, she strode into the hospital and demanded the nurse comply. When the Nurse refused my Aunt’s holy anger gave her the strength to lift up the nurse, plant her against the wall and tell the nurse coldly, ‘you will give Richard the pain killer or you will be needing it for yourself’’. The nurse gave Richard the pain killer…And to spite the Hospital, Richard lived.

I first remembered her when I was probably about 4 or so and living at my Grandparents’ home in Palmerston North. She introduced us to porridge. I remember the look on her face when she heard that all we ever ate was cold weetbix. She would have none of that. I remember how impressed I was with Porridge. How I stared in wonder at the cream and milk floating on it. How it was warm and how the sugar fell as crystals then syrup-ed into glassy sheen on top. It was love in a warm, grey lumpy sludge.

In the main, she was strict, very disciplined, principled, and fair. Her sisters and brothers couldn’t pull her into fights with their partners, she wouldn’t take sides. She wouldn’t take sides with children fights either. If you started it, you finished it, no one would rescue you. She kept her promises, even if it was months later. The first summer, I wouldn’t swim in the Council’s paddling pool (I saw a white boy with red hair, poo in it). She didn’t see that. But she promised if I wasn’t going to swim in the pool then I wasn’t to go with them to it next year. Next year came along, and I didn’t get to go. Rather than be upset, I was impressed and comforted that promises meant something. (And I enjoyed the time on my own.)

She was truthful, and wouldn’t tolerate lies or cowardice. She taught evil was rooted in those two things; lies and lack of courage. Now much older, I’ve seen that’s true.

But she hit me often. I could avoid it if I was clear on the rules, pay attention, and keep small. I learned a lot of self-discipline and to pay attention. At 5-6 years old, my memory wasn’t always that good though. And the beatings were severe, around the end of my stay with her, for a few weeks, after dinner I would clean myself up and put myself in bed at 6 p.m to avoid any opportunity to be punished for an infraction. Still, I forgave her. One night she came quietly into the darkened room, sat at the end of the bed and told me that it was not right that she was so hard, that what she was doing was wrong. I will always be grateful for that. I had felt that it was me; I was just ‘wrong’. And it shifted something. She said she loved me. She teared up and said she couldn’t keep treating me this way. Not too long after I was sent to Petone for a brief stay, before moving to more homes.

Ten or so years later, I was 15, in and out of hospital. I was alone. I wrote to her, I don’t know what it was I said or didn’t say. But she was on the plane immediately, to visit and see if I needed to leave. She said she read between the lines and she had to come. And it was this trait, that she would drop everything if you needed her – to ‘rescue’ you from harm, I saw time and time again. I learned in time that she shaped me; I remember one night ages ago at a gathering with ex-missionaries I had served with, we were to go around the circle and describe the best trait of another in the room. A former companion picked me and said; ‘Kat will go to hell and back for a friend’ – and the others nodded. I know, that’s been one of her influences on my character.

I wished I had written to her more. I wish I knew the strong succumb to death. For some stupid reason, I assumed death wasn’t stronger than she. And she’s gone. At this time of Matariki, I mourn her.